Sylvia's Journey through a Year of COVID-19
Sylvia Natukunda distinctly recalls the day in early 2020 that changed the course of her Kampala, Uganda-based yogurt business, Farm Reap.
She had secured an order from one of the largest supermarkets in the city and was set to make delivery when the government enacted a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Everything stopped. Customer after customer told her they were not accepting new products, especially perishable ones like yogurt. “I was stuck with all these products and did not know what to do,” she recalls.
In response, she decided to pause production at her facility for a short period of time to take stock of the rapid changes happening all around. Even though Farm Reap was permitted to operate as an essential business, customers were under lockdown and drastically scaling back trips to stores.
Sylvia did, however, have a bright spot to turn to: her newly started collaboration with Challenges Uganda, a local business advisory firm she was matched with as a winner of the 2020 Feed the Future Growing Women’s Entrepreneurship (GroWE) award through Partnering for Innovation.
Over the course of the ensuing year, Sylvia and Challenges Uganda would co-design and implement a set of business development support services to help accelerate Farm Reap. The timing could not have been better.
Getting to Work
With her sales plummeting due to the pandemic, she quickly got to work developing a new way forward to keep her business afloat. As a first step, Sylvia and the Challenges Uganda team assessed the health of her business by looking at its current finances, determining areas for cost-cutting, and identifying yogurt flavors most likely to sell. A plan started to emerge that would prioritize online marketing to boost sales and build awareness of her products.
As March turned to April, Sylvia noticed things were starting to change for the better. Consumers were increasingly purchasing food items online, and Farm Reap was ramping up its online presence to capture the benefits.
Using a variety of social media sites, including tapping into her network of contacts through WhatsApp, Sylvia noticed growing interest in and sales of her yogurts. Following recommendations from Challenges Uganda, she revamped her product line offerings, as well as her marketing messages, to ensure they resonated with customers’ current situations.
For instance, of the five flavors of yogurt produced by Farm Reap, three of them — plain, vanilla and strawberry — tended to be more popular than others. The company decided to focus on these faster-selling flavors to maximize sales and to reduce the need to store large amounts of less popular flavors, like chocolate and mango.
Product size was also an area of focus, as consumers’ new home-based routines meant that they were not as interested in “on-the-go” yogurt containers. Once again Farm Reap pivoted, this time from producing smaller-sized containers (300 milliliters and 1 liter) to larger-sized ones (5 liters) that better aligned with consumers’ current needs and interests.
Through these efforts, she was able to generate enough sales to cover some of her costs and to retain her employees. Additionally, she continued to procure 100% of the company’s milk from smallholder-supplied collection centers located across the region. While the volume she sourced decreased, she was still able to access what she needed to produce her yogurts as the dairy industry was considered essential. (Watch: Take a virtual tour of Sylvia's yogurt-production facility and learn more about her operations.)
As lockdown restrictions eased, people started to venture out to stores more often and Sylvia’s business felt the effects. With online sales decreasing, she realized she needed more planning, from logistics to customer service, to successfully manage this new aspect of her business. Nonetheless, Sylvia believes that, “starting online sales was the best decision I made in 2020; if I didn’t, Farm Reap would have closed.”
With Challenges Uganda, she saw the value of online sales and applied these early lessons towards developing a more comprehensive strategy. Farm Reap currently has a sales channel for online ordering and has dedicated a specific day – Fridays – for online orders. This small, but critical change has made the process easier to manage overall, and the company is exploring different delivery services, including in-house options, to find the perfect cost-benefit balance.
Apart from generating sales, Sylvia also saw the positive impact online sales had on building awareness of Farm Reap’s products. Her advertising across multiple social media platforms received many “likes” and positive comments, so even if people did not make a purchase, they still came away familiar with the company. That’s a win for Sylvia whose products face tough market competition against more well-known and established yogurt brands.
As an entrepreneur, Sylvia also gained valuable insights that she plans to apply going forward and can offer to other women entrepreneurs. For one thing, she says she realizes now, in collaborating with Challenges Uganda, the value of working with professionals, such as accountants and social media experts, right from the start: “Hiring the right people for key functions allows me to focus more on strategy and growing my business – not trying to do or be everything in the company.”
A year into the pandemic, Sylvia still thinks about that day in early 2020 that changed everything.
She believes that without the challenges the company faced, she would not have explored online delivery sales as soon as she did – “COVID kickstarted it,” she says, “and that led to doing social media advertising, which I now see gives us a competitive edge in terms of people knowing about our product.”
When asked how Farm Reap will be faring a year from now, Sylvia does not hesitate to answer: “We will have grown with the right personnel and the right equipment in place.”